x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Survival of the fittest

Feature Fitness holidays offer the chance to kick-start your routine in new surroundings. Melanie Swan is put through her paces at a boot camp in southern Spain

Mark Anthony's boot camp follows the simple philosophy of basic exercises and repetition.
Mark Anthony's boot camp follows the simple philosophy of basic exercises and repetition.

"Pain is weakness leaving the body. Pain is the body reminding you you're alive." Not words which, when screamed at you as you run uphill in the pouring rain, most people would call a holiday. I like to try new things when I go away and I'm not afraid of going alone. I always like to meet new people and I thought a military fitness boot camp in the year-round sunshine of southern Spain, staying in a converted mill, would be a great idea.

I was told it never falls below 16°C there so I imagined balmy spring days - only to find the worst rain in the area for 50 years. When most people fly to Malaga, they usually head for the city's cobbled streets with quaint tapas bars and art galleries, the luxurious hotels of Marbella or the snow on the stunning Sierra Nevada mountain range. From the airport, I was to drive 50 minutes away towards the mountains, near to the town of Iznajar on the borders of the provinces of Malaga, Granada and Cordoba.

There was nothing close by, so it was clear to see there would be no distractions. No temptation to get a chocolate bar from the nearby shop - the closest amenities were a 20-minute drive away. Iznajar is an old Moorish stronghold with a ruined eighth-century castle on the shores of Lake Iznajar, which is the largest in Andalusia. At 900 metres above sea level with stunning views, it is a perfect location for running and hiking. It is also the largest olive-producing region in Europe - leaving you with no doubt you're in Spain. Shepherds still wander the hills, like a scene from Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist.

In Abu Dhabi I go to the gym four times a week and consider myself pretty healthy, but I knew from the start that this week would be not be easy. My trainers would be two of the British army's 400 physical training instructors (PTIs) - the boys who keep the army fit. I braced myself for the worst: horrific wake-up calls at the crack of dawn, people shouting at me until I cried. With these preconceptions, of course, it could only be better.

Military boot camps have been rising in popularity over the last year or so. In the UK, you can even find bridal boot camps for girls desperate to lose the last couple of pounds to squeeze into their wedding dresses. They fundamentally consist of old-school skills: running, hiking, hill reps (running up and down hills) and circuit training. Oh, and a lot of sit-ups and press-ups. Having trained with a former English professional footballer, I knew the standards were going to be tough. I was right.

One of the camp's directors is Mark Anthony, a fitness professional from London, who has trained the likes of the Bollywood stars Bipasha Basu and Akshay Kumar, and the Qatari princesses Muneera and Azemah. His philosophy is to keep it simple, using basic exercises and repetition to get fast results. The executive chef, Cynthia Kilmartin, compiled a menu to cater for the different needs of the participants. She has cooked for celebrities such as U2 as well as the late Princess Diana.

Some boot campers want to simply lose weight. They are fed carefully planned, calorie-counted meals. Others, like myself, come for the personal challenge, the desire to be pushed further than ever before and to use this week as a kick-start to getting truly fit. Three main meals and two snacks are provided to help you through the long days. The menu is made to detoxify the system. There is no wheat, caffeine, sugar or processed food. Everything is made fresh in the house with local seasonal produce. Fresh fish, salads, home-made soups and plenty of eggs provide the mainstay of the week's meals.

The week started quite tamely after we had all been up since around 4am to catch our flights. We were weighed, measured (including around our arms, thighs and waist) and then asked why we were there. "Personal challenge," I answered. What did I want to get out of the week? To get through it. Everyone was eager to know how our week was planned, hoping for an itinerary to stick by and brace ourselves for what was coming. Everything being weather-dependent, this was not going to happen.

On the daunting first day, we started our fitness tests. These were taken in order to show us how much we had achieved by the end of the week. Two minutes of sit-ups and press-ups to begin with. Any done incorrectly would not count. Then came the "bleep test" or multi-stage fitness test consisting of 20-metre shuttle runs to be completed within a certain time. There are 21 levels and as a gauge, we were told that at peak fitness most soldiers are around level 16. Army entry level for men need to be level 10.2, women, 8.1. I made 5.2. I had a lot of work to do.

Over the course of the week, we would aim to increase our results through a series of activities including log runs, boxing circuits and hiking. The days are packed with activities. One day, after a morning run and circuit training, we hiked for nearly six hours in El Torcal, a part of the seabed in the Jurassic period and now at an altitude of 1,300m. A full day of the week is spent hiking, while another is spent doing water sports such as kayaking on Lake Cubillas. This was considered our "easy day", which came towards the end of the week as everyone began to rapidly flag with muscle fatigue, knee pains and, well, every other body part that could possibly hurt after so much exercise.

One of the best things about such an intensive week working alongside such experienced fitness professionals is the education. They really make sure you take home good techniques for safe and healthy workouts in the future. We were encouraged to learn about our muscles, stretching, preparations for exercise and the importance of rest for muscle recovery. We were shown how to create our own circuits, thinking about multiple exercises for each muscle group. We were taught the importance of running outdoors, not conditioning your body to run on flat surfaces in straight lines like when running on a treadmill.

Every one of us left that camp knowing more than when we came. For me, I left with confidence. On my final day's fitness test, I'd finally cracked it. I was army fit. I reached level 9.1 on the bleep test and it surprised me how quickly I saw results. I didn't lose much weight - just a couple of pounds - but at 57 kilos, I wasn't there to lose weight as much as tone up and get fit. The measurements around my thighs and the tops of my arms did get smaller and my upper body was certainly firmer, thanks to the gruelling core training we did most days.

But now I can take to the streets with confidence, not afraid to run in public, not perturbed by a little rain. I've run up muddy, virtually vertical olive groves. A minute of weighted full sit-ups or press-ups now feels like routine and my tricep dips are now perfect. Getting to the end of my week at boot camp gave me a great sense of achievement, though by the end I could not bear to see another nut, salad leaf or bowl of soup. I did refuse to undo all my hard work by going back to my old habits- apart from a Snickers on the flight home.

Travelling to do one of these courses is a very intensive way to work out and kick start your regime whether you are obese, unfit or just want to take your fitness to a higher level. There were no distractions and you're among like-minded people who all know that you get out what you put in. At the gym, people aren't always using correct techniques whereas here, everything is catered to your needs and skill level to ensure that you go home able to be independent, not needing expensive personal trainers in the gym.

People can get lazy at the gym too, not pushing themselves, falling into routines. We can all do more than we do and boot camp proves this. One woman, aged 46, had never exercised in her life and she left being able to run, press weights and generally have the confidence to walk into a gym, which she never had before back home in London. The camp is a perfect location to reach some of the local sights too. Just an hour away lies Granada, a historic treasure, the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain and home to the Alhambra, a stunningly well-preserved Moorish citadel and palace. Nearby is the Hotel Bobadilla, just 10 minutes from El Molino (The Mill). The hotel is a copy of an Andalusian palace and is a favourite of King Juan Carlos of Spain as well as celebrities including Tom Cruise. Further West lies Seville, famous for its oranges and as the setting for the opera Carmen.

That's if you've got the energy to move - I was so shattered for a couple of days that I could barely walk, but after that I was so bitten by the exercise-bug that I couldn't wait to start running again. mswan@thenational.ae For further details visit www.bootcampspain.com